In His Human Name: Jesus
Our Lord bears the human name Jesus (Greek Iēsous). Joseph and Mary did not choose this name; it was commanded from heaven (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31). That is not to say that the name was unique, for there were other men named “Jesus” (Col. 4:11). It was a common name among Jews through the beginning of the second century AD.1 For this reason, people spoke of “Jesus of Nazareth” in order to distinguish him from others with the same name.2 Therefore, the name “Jesus” testifies to Christ’s humanity—it is the name of a man.
Why did God ordain through angels that this name would be given to his incarnate Son? The answer to this question comes from both the name’s historical background and its etymological meaning. Historically, “Jesus” was the Greek form of “Joshua” (Hebrew Yehoshu‘a),3 as appears from the use of “Jesus” in the Septuagint and New Testament for that great Israelite leader Joshua, the son of Nun.4 Joshua’s parents named him “Oshea,” or “Hoshea” (ESV),5 but the prophet Moses renamed him “Joshua” (Num. 13:16 ESV), perhaps in conjunction with Joshua’s faith that the Lord would give the Israelites victory over their enemies so that they could inherit the land of Canaan (Num. 14:6–9). Joshua succeeded Moses as the servant of the Lord (Josh. 1:1–2; 24:29) and brought Israel into the Promised Land just as God had sworn to Abraham (Josh. 21:43–45; 23:14). The land of Canaan was a type of the saints’ eternal rest in their glorious inheritance, the kingdom of God (Heb. 4:7–9; 11:13–16).6
The Origins of the Name “Jesus”
Etymologically, the name “Jesus” or “Joshua” derives from Hebrew roots meaning “the Lord is salvation.”7 The Scriptures couple God’s name and salvation to communicate that the Lord, and he alone, saves his people from evil by his sovereign grace.8 We ordinarily must exercise caution in deriving the meaning of words from their etymology instead of looking to their usage, but the Scriptures explicitly state, “Thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Hence, his name “Jesus” means that he is the Savior, as John of Damascus observed.9 Unlike Joshua, Jesus does not merely rescue his people from physical dangers, but gives them victory over the spiritual evil that alienates them from God.
The Greek phrase “he shall save” in Matthew 1:21 emphasizes “he” (autos): he and he alone will do this.10 The Heidelberg Catechism (LD 11, Q. 29) says, “Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is, a Savior? Because He saveth us, and delivereth us from our sins; and likewise, because we ought not to seek, neither can find salvation in any other.”11 William Perkins said, “He is both a perfect and absolute Savior, as also the alone Savior of man, because the work of salvation is wholly and only wrought by Him, and no part thereof is reserved to any creature in heaven or in earth.”12
The name “Jesus” identifies Christ as God’s human servant who alone saves people and brings them into their eternal inheritance.
Therefore, the name “Jesus” identifies Christ as God’s human servant who alone saves people and brings them into their eternal inheritance. However, “the name speaks to us of the divine omnipotence of salvation,” as Geerhardus Vossaid.13 Though “Jesus” is a human name, its meaning suggests that in this man, God has come to us, for God says, “I, even I, am the Lord; and beside me there is no saviour” (Isa. 43:11; cf. 45:21).14
Hope in His Name
The name “Jesus” is a sober warning to those careless about their sins, for how can they embrace this “Savior” if they do not believe they are sinners in need of salvation? Perkins reminded us that before we can acknowledge the Savior, we must believe and feel the offense of our sins against God. To receive Jesus, we must know that without him we will perish forever, for lost people are the only ones that Jesus came to save (Matt. 18:11; Luke 19:10).15
The name “Jesus” also contains a sweet promise to believers. Caspar Olevianus said, “Since God, who cannot lie, commanded from heaven that His Son manifested in the flesh be given this name Jesus, that is, ‘Savior,’ I know for certain and have the assurance that He fully and perfectly saves me, body and soul. . . . Faithful is He who bears that splendid name Jesus. He will do what He promised.”16
- Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 10 vols.Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964, 3:285.
- Matt. 26:71; Mark 1:24; 14:67; Luke 4:34; 18:37; 24:19; John 1:45; 18:5, 7; 19:19; Acts 2:22; 6:14; 10:38; 22:8; 26:9; cf. Matt. 21:11; Acts 3:6; 4:10.
- After the exile, the Hebrew name Yehoshu’a was shortened to Yeshu’a, which was then transliterated into Greek as Iēsou or Iēsous (Ezra 2:2; Neh. 8:17). In Latin, it became Jesus (pronounced Yay-soos).
- Ex. 17:9-10; 1 Kings 16:34; etc. LXX; Acts 7:45; Heb. 4:8.
- This is the same name given to the prophet “Hosea” (Hebrew, Hoshe’a).
- It may be that “Jesus” also alludes to another Joshua, son of Josedech, the high priest who served the returned exiles alongside Zerubbabel and foreshadowed the coming Priest-King (Hag. 1:1, 13, 14; 2:2, 4; Zech. 3:1-10; 6:11-13). See Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:8.
- Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:6. “Joshua” (Yehoshu’a derives from “the LORD” (YHWH or its shortened form, Yah) and the verb translated as “rescue, save” (yasha’. Compare “Elisha” (Elisha’), meaning “God is salvation.”
- Ex. 14:13, 30; 15:2; 1 Sam. 17:47; 2 Chron. 20:17; Ps. 3:8; Lam. 3:26; Jonah 2:9.
- John of Damascus, An exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 3.2, in NPNF, 9.2:46.
- Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 29-30.
- The Three Forms of Unity, 77.
- Perkins, An Exposition of the Symbol, in Works, 5:98. Perkins was not excluding the other persons of the Trinity, but clarified that the Father saves through the Son, and the Spirit saves by applying the work fo the Son (99).
- Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:7.
- Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, trans. Donald Fraser, 2 vols. (1823; rept., Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 9.12 (1:237).
- Perkins, An Exposition of the Symbol, in Works, 5:100.
- Olevianus, An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, 54. We omit a Scripture reference that Olevianus cited.
This article is adapted from Reformed Systematic Theology: Volume 2: Man and Christ by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley.
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